Taking action against climate change: the time for working alone is over

Taking action on climate change has long been the purview of individual companies, large and small, acting alone for the betterment of their communities and the environment. But the urgent need for drastic change means the time for acting alone is over. How can businesses partner and collaborate to make change, now?
Nespresso Roundtable

In the past, sustainability was often a solo endeavour, the pursuit of purpose driven businesses and those already feeling the effects of climate change. Somewhere along the way, the reality of the world’s interconnectedness has made an impact on its businesses. Everyone is responsible for and affected by climate change; so, it’s up to everyone to do something about it.

And, for corporations, that more often means working in partnership to create a brighter future for themselves and for the planet.

“We can have a meaningful impact on some of society’s biggest challenges,” Nespresso UK & ROI CEO Anna Lundstrom says, “Especially when we harness the collective strength of many different companies and industries. That’s why collaboration has been at the core of Nespresso for over 30 years, not only in terms of our brand, but very much when it comes to our approach to sustainability.”

The need for business to do so has only become more urgent in the year following COP26. Little has changed in the regulatory or governmental landscape, leaving businesses to shoulder more of the burden in taking urgent action against climate change.

“There’s a real opportunity in that urgency,” says B Lab (B Corp certifiers) UK’s director of communications and marketing Ros Holley. “More businesses are now stepping forward to say that they want to commit to change, and they want to leave competition at the door and collaborate. We can go beyond the individual impact of any given company and look at the collective impact we want to have.”

But, what is more apparent, are the changing mindsets within companies about working with their competitors. Cross-industry collaboration – like coffee pod recycling programme Podback or recyclable packaging research and development – is necessary to facilitate the creative solutions that will move the needle on sustainable business.

Thirty years ago, says Podback executive director Rick Hindley, there was little or no recycling happening in the UK. Individual efforts were launched, like Nespresso’s own recycling programme in 2010, but now, industry leaders Nespresso, Nestlé and Jacobs Douwe Egberts have led the charge to make change through joint initiative, Podback. Podback’s mission is to bring organisations together across the coffee industry to provide households easy access to coffee pod recycling. That kind of collaboration among competitors indicates a mature understanding of the challenges facing businesses and consumers today with regards to sustainability.

Hindley says: “[Companies] needed to put competition to one side and develop an initiative – to create a universal collection system for coffee pods – which was convenient for consumers. We see continuing uncertainty in future government recycling policy. So, the big players need to take the lead and recognise that they, as brand leaders, have a part to play. Competition has to be put aside, otherwise we will never, as a business community, be able to lead the way.

Looking past competition for the greater good of the environment may seem a daunting task, but it can be achieved by companies working together towards a goal that benefits all.

“I think one of the challenges of sustainability is that ‘profit’ had been a dirty word. Well, actually, it’s not. It’s in partnership with ‘people’ and ‘planet,’ says the Exclusive Collection’s managing director Danny Pecorelli, echoing the B Corp approach of which his company is a part.

Where collaboration is difficult across competitive landscapes, companies are more often taking leadership roles within their industries, thus providing a best practice example in sustainable business.

Drinks brand Innocent is a good example of a company that has taken the radical step of imbuing every aspect of its business with a sustainability purpose. All employees are galvanised around the company’s sustainability goals, and it is a core objective in every leadership discussion. This drive for good may encourage competitors to take action too.

“In our meeting rooms we have a literal extra seat where we’ve printed on it, ‘people and planet.’ So we’re regularly reminded when making decisions that we’ve got a part to play. It’s quite simple but it actually makes a difference. Then the workforce feels engaged, empowered and proud, which is really important,” says Innocent Drinks’ UK head of force for good, Emilie Stephenson.

The coffee industry is one that is at the frontline of climate change. Coffee crops are reliant on a specific climate and temperature. To ensure a sustainable supply in the future, Nespresso has been working with farmers and partners since the business began. In 2003 it created the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program to embed sustainable farming practices and help to ensure that coffee remains a viable product.. Today this sees Nespresso work with more than 140,000 farmers in 18 countries to strengthen sustainability practices on farms and the surrounding landscapes, helps improve the yield and quality of harvests, ensuring a sustainable supply of high-quality coffee and improving the livelihoods of farmers and their communities.

We need collaboration to push us forward. Business needs to be a force for good, because we’re not going to get it from anywhere else. If [legislative change] is not going to happen, then businesses need to collaborate

Luxury hotel chain the Exclusive Collection, which operates on a smaller scale, has found that it can still make an impact by setting an example for its suppliers. In setting its own sustainability objectives, it is holding suppliers to those same standards. If the suppliers are able to make change, they are then improving sustainability across all the companies they may supply.

Pecorelli says his team first understands who its suppliers are and how they approach sustainability. They also provide sustainability communications to business customers, who are increasingly looking for sustainable hospitality providers for corporate events. As the owner of over 800 acres of land, education was always the name of the game for the hotelier’s sustainability programme. Pecorelli says: “We’re doing better with our land because we’re educating ourselves. From a business perspective, from a consumer perspective, every perspective, we need to get education really at the forefront of our communications.”

For many organisations, though, support and collaboration is still most effective when working with charities or independent third parties. Organisations like the Rainforest Alliance, B Lab and other NGOs have been fighting on the climate change frontlines for years and are well-equipped to support businesses that want to make impactful change.

“We need to keep on pushing the needle so we can continuously improve and seek the next step,” says Sarah Browne, marketing manager at the Rainforest Alliance. “Certification can be an effective tool - in combination with other approaches - for transforming supply chains. But we need to go further and faster. We all need to work together to repair and restore from an agricultural perspective.”

At Daylesford Organic, regenerative and organic farming practices have been in play since day one and the company is constantly innovating to ensure it is as sustainable as it can be. A recent example involved the team re-examining the best use of hides and wool from its animals as these items have declined in value and are often wasted. Daylesford now uses its  wool as insulation in its buildings and has turned its cattle hides into leather upholstery at The Fox in Lower Oddington. 

Daylesford Organic’s director of sustainability, Henry Unwin, says certifications like organic farming are incredibly important to businesses seeking to make a broad impact and tackle climate change. “We need collaboration to push us forward,” he says. “Business needs to be a force for good, because we’re not going to get it from anywhere else. If [legislative change] is not going to happen, then businesses need to collaborate.”

The Daylesford farms are leading the way in small-scale regenerative farming in the UK. Nespresso has also prioritised these practices but on a global scale. Its work with the Rainforest Alliance has seen the co-development of the Rainforest Alliance Regenerative Coffee Scorecard and enabled Nespresso to engage with coffee farmers – many of which are smallholders or family-run farms – and help educate on regenerative agriculture practices; an approach that has the potential to not only reduce global agri-food emissions but to increase rural resilience against the impacts of climate change.

Lundstrom says this is a complex ambition. “That’s why collaboration is so crucial. When it comes to consumer awareness, partnerships can be incredibly powerful,” she says. Nespresso recently built on its relationship with George Clooney to reach consumers and highlight the need to act now. Its latest brand campaign saw the actor holding an empty coffee cup to show the what the true impact of climate change will be if nothing is done.

These kinds of initiatives are the ones that make a difference for B Lab when it is examining which organisations meet its stringent requirements. Holley says the rigour of the B Corp certification ensures that it can be trusted by consumers. But, as the number of registered B Corps grows, the organisation is focusing on educating consumers about its certification and inspiring collaborative work among the B Corp community.

Consumer education is important across the board in sustainable business. Suez’s head of external communications, Emma Jordan, points out that consumers have to be engaged around the value of packaging to actually be willing to recycle. The pack itself has a material cost and must be thought of throughout the product lifecycle, including how customers will use and dispose of it, in order to achieve circular economic objectives.

Companies are now engaging in a two-way conversation with their consumers. On the one hand, companies are communicating about their sustainability objectives, changes and goals. But on the other, consumers may also be driving the change they want to see. “We have to change people’s mindsets about resource management,” says Jordan, adding that collaborative research into product design and consumer education about the value of recycling can make a big impact.

Patrick Winters, partner, consumer products, food and beverage at Baringa agrees, saying that new packaging products have to be coupled with consumer education and that, regardless of size, companies must engage with their customers around sustainability. “There’s something inherently authentic about smaller brands that consumers are more inclined to trust. But what large organisations do is show that their scale is their real strength. Both of them have a role to play. If they both play to their strengths, they can add to that sustainability story.”

Because of this shift in consumer engagement with sustainable business, the way companies are structured may also have to adapt.

Collaboration is a great way to maximise the impact of our initiatives. We have to have the humility to say that we don’t have all the solutions on our own. We can’t be experts in everything. We can build the relationships with experts who can help us to find solutions and become stronger together

“It can’t just be a functional responsibility. It is a company-wide initiative that touches strategy, product, communications and retail operations. It has to run throughout the business,” Lundstrom says.

The stakeholders involved in making sustainability decisions have broadened in the past few years. A decade ago, sustainability might have sat with a head of CSR or possibly a sustainability director. Now, the impetus for change is more often coming from the corporate leader themselves.

Pecorelli adds: “It’s not just individuals, though, we have to try to create a sustainable culture. And that’s hard work.”

This is not only a function of sustainability being more essential to retaining profits and to simply doing good in the world, but it is representative of the breadth of business operations that sustainability now affects. Whether it’s supply chain operations and procurement, packaging and product design or marketing and communications, there’s no denying a more collaborative future for sustainability leadership within companies.

“Collaboration is a great way to maximise the impact of our initiatives,” Lundstrom says. “We have to have the humility to say that we don’t have all the solutions on our own. We can’t be experts in everything. We can build the relationships with experts who can help us to find solutions and become stronger together.”

Collaboration may be the key to unlocking greater opportunities for sustainability in business. Companies should look to their own operations and leadership while also engaging with partners and charities to broaden their impact. But, if change is going to be made before the direct effects of unsustainable behaviours are felt, competitors must immediately start working in partnership more, setting aside their differences and coming together to inspire lasting, meaningful action against climate change.

What would you change to ensure a more sustainable future?

Danny Pecorelli, managing director, the Exclusive Collection: “The lens through which the government looks at sustainability.” 

Emma Jordan, head of external communications, Suez UK: “Changing people’s mindsets about waste and getting them to think about it as a resource. Our focus is shifting to prevent waste from becoming waste in the first place. We need to get people to think about items differently.”

Ros Holley, director of communications & marketing, B Lab UK: “Moving away from the impact of being thought of solely at an individual business level to also a collective impact level.”

Emilie Stephenson, head of force for good, Innocent Drinks: “Scotland’s deposit return scheme. I think there is an opportunity to make it a success. And the idea of circularity around the materials that we as drinks producers are leading the way on with the Scottish government.”

Sarah Browne, marketing manager, Rainforest Alliance: “I believe the future of sustainability is about data. As the need for transparency and social and environmental reporting grows, businesses will need to be able to better demonstrate their sustainability impact.”

Henry Unwin, director of sustainability, Daylesford Organic: “A move away from the long-term, big goal target setting of achieving net zero. We need a shift from virtue signalling to actually looking at immediate impact, and with that, comes the honesty to tackle the challenges we are facing today. Only through collaboration will we be able to enact change that has immediate impact, and it is this that is so desperately needed to ensure a more sustainable future.”

Patrick Winters, partner, consumer products, food and beverage, Baringa: “Hope. With anyone [aged] under 30, there’s a fundamentally different shift in behaviours and thought processes. My hope is that those generations stay like that as they get older and that they don’t lose that passion for sustainability. They’re the consumers of tomorrow.”

Rick Hindley, executive director, Podback: “We have to put competitiveness to one side. Until everyone is on the same page there, it will be very difficult. Otherwise, we will never, as a business community, be able to lead the way.”

Anna Lundstrom, CEO, Nespresso UK & ROI: “A hope for more collaboration. We’ve seen the impact; we know that it works. Now is the time to accelerate that both internally – collaborating more between our employees, our teams and different functions – but also externally, with businesses across the industry and with our consumers.”